Mark 7:1-30New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I have only once in my life eaten soap. I was 7 years old. I said something in church. I should not have said it. It was one of those words that they bleep on daytime TV. I said the kind of thing to which someone might respond:
“Do You Kiss Your Mother with those Lips?!”
My mom and dad’s parenting style included such punishments as “washing out your mouth with soap.” So they did. And we didn’t have chai tea soap, or cucumber melon soap. Our soap was just plain, old, soap. Tasted like a candle.
Of course, there is such a thing as actual MOUTH wash. Can you believe we live in the era of mouthwash? We live in a day and age when cleanliness really does seem to equate with godliness. We have specialized instruments to clean every part of our houses--mops, brooms, swiffers and swiffer wet-jets; vacuums, dustbusters, lint rollers; soaps, shampoos, deodorants and detergents, alcohol-based and non-alcohol-based instant sanitizers. As a parent of two young children, I am familiar with all of these cleaning products. Very familiar.
So we can capture something of the force of revulsion that the Pharisees felt when they saw Jesus’ disciples eating without having first washed their hands. Yuck! They didn’t wash their hands?! We can capture some of it. But not all.
Because what Jesus’ disciples were doing was not just a little icky or unsanitary. It went against the very spiritual and religious backbone of their society. And this transgressive, boundary-breaking, tradition-flouting activity was being done by followers of a religious leader whose popularity was growing and growing.
Just before today’s story, Mark notes that “people at once recognized [Jesus], and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” [Mark 6:54b-56]
Jesus was popular. And everyone was watching his and his disciples’ every move, waiting for a slip-up, a scandal, a crack in the immaculate Jesus armor.
In that way, Jesus’ time was not so different from ours. Except, nowadays, people have a lot more ways to screw up and a lot more ways for other people to find out about it. Have you heard about the Ashley Madison scandal? Ashley Madison is a website through which people could find someone who was willing to have an affair. Well, internet hackers hacked this website and are releasing the names of people who used it. Relevant Magazine estimates that over 400 religious leaders will probably be found on this list. Now, imagine finding out that people from this church’s leadership were on that list. Imagine that. We might be getting closer to how the Pharisees felt about Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands.
And this is where Jesus becomes so provocative, so transgressive! He tells a story that cuts to the heart of the matter. “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother, but you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)--then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.”
Let me explain. The people of Jesus’ time had nothing like social security or medicare or nursing homes. Instead, an elderly person or a sick person had to rely on his or her relatives, usually children, to keep them alive after they were unable to work. People without family had a hard time surviving in Jesus’ day.
So, imagine that you were the sole support for your mother or father. Maybe some of you have found yourselves in this situation. Imagine this, and then imagine taking the money that would go to support them, the room in your house where they could live, and the food that you would make for them, and “dedicating it” to the church’s use. Now, this doesn’t mean that the church actually used it. Instead, you would leave the room empty, put the food in a deep freezer, and place the money in a special savings account. You wouldn’t actually give any of it, you would just promise that you would give it at some point. Then you would say to your relative: “Sorry! I can’t help you. I put all my extra stuff toward the church!”
Jesus quotes Isaiah 29: “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Later, he says: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Jesus’ focus is on the heart.
Jesus is reframing the whole conversation about what it means to be holy. Because Jesus knew that all sorts of laws and traditions and customs can be made to help people be “holy,” and “good,” but that people will always find a way to move beyond these laws and traditions in order to do evil.
After Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO last August, a movement sprung up, called Black Lives Matter, led by young black women and men. BLM works toward combatting racism in all its forms. Some activists have been confronting presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton. At one point, Hillary said to those confronting her: “I don't believe you change hearts. You change laws.”
As Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote, reflecting on this encounter, Hillary Clinton’s statement is part of a larger debate about how change happens in the world. Dr. Cooper points back to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote:
“If the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”
Notice that Dr. King says the “final” solution is changed hearts. Laws can restrain people who would otherwise cause harm. But laws are not the final solution.
Dr. Cooper goes on to note ways in which laws that were put in place during the civil rights movement have been turned into swiss cheese with loopholes, or outright ignored. She then points out that many people responded to the cry: “Black Lives Matter,” with the affirmation “All Lives Matter.” “When White people say “All lives matter,” Dr. Cooper writes, “they betray a troubling belief that affirming the value of one group’s life diminishes the value of “all lives,” or more specifically white lives. This zero-sum calculus fails to acknowledge that white lives already have more value in the system.”
She’s pointing to the fact that white people, and specifically, white men who are attracted to women, come “first” in our society. Let’s just focus on one issue: the criminal justice system. Although black people make up only 13% of the general population, they represent 40% of the prison population. Black men and women are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. They are 3 times more likely to be searched when pulled over for a minor traffic violation. They are 3 times more likely to be suspended from school. And black teens are 2 times more likely to be put through the juvenile detention system than their white counterparts. And all of these statistics are just about the criminal justice system. I’ve said nothing about employment, poverty, education.
The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to combat this systemic racism, what is called “white supremacy.” It’s a racism that is encoded in all of our laws, in the way we treat people on a daily basis. It’s the human customs that we cling to. These laws and traditions make black people second class citizens in our society.
Dr. Cooper continues: “Under a system of white supremacy, white people experience calls for social equality as a devaluing of white life, rather than as a necessary systematic recalibration of structures so that all lives matter equally. [BUT!] To do this, [to make things equal], we don’t make white lives matter less. We make Black lives matter more. Because the value of white life remains the measuring stick for the value of all lives, white people have to resolve not to see the rising value of other lives as a diminishing of their own value. And that requires a change of heart.” “The Movement,” she writes, “is calling for a change of hearts and minds. Its call is rooted in the recognition that we don’t just live within systems; systems live within us, and those systems determine how we make meaning and value out of the world and people around us.” END QUOTE
Jenna’s children’s message today made a good point about the spirit of our Crossroads Youth Group. When someone new comes into the building, they are greeted warmly and one of us gets up to give them our spot. But while this is a good practice at Crossroads, imagine that not just one, but a whole bunch of people were being denied a space. The worry would be that we would all have to give up our seat. But what Dr. Cooper is pointing to is that we would actually need to renovate! We would need to tear down the building, tear down the whole system and build a new one. Which is actually harder. It costs more. But it costs something different. Not giving up our seat, but reforming the whole system. [SIDENOTE for readers, this is actually a problem we have faced at Crossroads. There has been an ongoing debate about what to do with our space, because we were exceeding capacity several times a year a few years ago. Many plans have been talked about, including designs that were drawn up for a complete renovation of the building.]
The problem is that we have become so accustomed to the laws and traditions that they become a part of us, and soon they come out of us. Our hearts then spew out defiling things, things that, as Jesus said, “go into the sewer.” Yes, Jesus just made a poop reference. So, in order to change the system, we need to change both laws AND hearts. We need a renovation.
She asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus responds: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Now, this means little to us. But in Jesus’ time, “dog,” was used as a racial slur, specifically, as a slur for people of, say, Syrophoenician origin. Yes, Jesus just used a racial slur. Jesus, Do You Kiss Your Mother with Those Lips?!
This text has completely confounded scholars. It confounds me. How could Jesus have done this? Some say that Jesus was just repeating a saying, something that others would have said, in order to demonstrate how he breaks tradition. Okay. But still. Couldn’t Jesus have NOT used a racial slur?
But what comes next is the beautiful part. This wonderful woman, this intelligent, persistent woman spits that racial slur back in his face, turns it on its head and says: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And this causes Jesus to heal her daughter. He specifically points out that it is what she said that caused him to change his mind. This mother’s lips changed his mind.
In fact, this is the only time in the entire Bible that someone changes Jesus’ mind. The only time. And it was an outsider. A woman (also on the outside of Jesus’ society). A persistent woman. A woman who obviously loved her daughter.
This woman said, “Jesus, please.” Jesus said, “These lives matter. These people are first.” And the woman said, “Yes, these lives matter. But that shouldn’t mean that my daughter’s life doesn’t matter. Just because we are “dogs,” unclean, outsiders, doesn’t mean that our lives don’t matter.”
I don’t know what to do with Jesus’ racial slur. But I do know how to follow him in what he did next. He listened. He saw this woman’s heart. He moved beyond his society’s prejudice and saw her and her daughter as people who mattered.
I want to ask us to do something similar. Right now, in Trenton, there is a 14 year old black boy who was shot 7 times, in the pelvis, legs and butt. He was running from men who stopped their unmarked van to talk to him and his friends late on a Friday night. Those men happened to be police officers. They claim that he reached for a gun. Other eye witnesses claim he was pulling his pants up, like any young person with saggy pants would do when running from men who emerge from an unmarked van. His name is Radazz Hearns. Radazz is 14. That’s only a year older than my oldest nephew, who is also black. That’s the same age as all the young people who Sarah and I just walked through Confirmation this past year. 14.
Even though no information has “officially” been released, “unofficially,” a “history” for this young man has been leaked by “unnamed” sources. This history includes three offenses: 1) at age 12, he voluntarily turned in a bag of marijuana to a teacher and was charged with drug possession; 2) he got in a fight when he was 13 because people had made fun of him on facebook; 3) another boy taunted him on the bus, then punched him and he defended himself. Let’s be clear. This is character assassination. This information was released in order to stain Radazz’s character, to prove that he is “unclean.”
But let’s think about this. He willingly turned in drugs. He stood up for himself when bullied. He defended himself when punched. That’s all they have on him.
But a case is being built against him. Criminal charges have been brought. It’s a case he probably cannot win, because he’s a 14 year old boy against a system that is ready and willing to rack up a criminal record until he can’t finish school (he was already suspended once), can’t get a job, and turns to crime as a last resort, and then can be put in prison for the long term, in order to do manual labor on the cheap and to make money for our for-profit prisons. Check out the book, The New Jim Crow. This is not an unfamiliar process. It’s a well-worn tactic for ensuring that nothing comes of his life, to tell him that his life does not matter.
Radazz is our child, our brother, our family. While we sit here, saying all the right words, singing these beautiful songs, giving of our time and money, putting our resources toward people who “deserve” it (and this church does help people, praise God!), Radazz is lying in pain, with little money for medical expenses, waiting for the moment when he will surrender himself to the law because he has few other options.
But there are people trying to do something about this. There are already protests that have happened and rallies that are being planned and people are trying to help his family pay for medical bills. And mostly, there are people who are letting this child know that he is loved. He is loved. He matters.
In the fourth chapter of 1 John, we read: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God….In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for OUR sins….Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” [1 John 4:7-10, 20-21]
So, would you kiss your mother with those lips? With lips that honor God, but whose heart is far from God’s own heart? God's own heart, a heart that loves sinners, a heart that came and bled and died for us while we were yet sinners? Would you kiss your mother with lips that say, “I love God,” but whose heart hates their brothers and sisters? Or, maybe worse, who say, “I love God,” and are just indifferent to their brothers and sisters? Who say, “I love God,” and just don’t care?
Fortunately, there is hope. There is hope, because we only know what love is because of the boundary-breaking, transgressive, all-consuming love of Jesus Christ. A love that looks to the heart, not whether or not we wash our hands. A love that was able to look past prejudice and tradition to see a woman who just really loved her daughter. We know what love is because God sent Jesus Christ into the world so that we might have abundant life. And this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us. God loved us first. And so every day, every hour, every minute, we can start again to try to love our brothers and sisters. Because our love does nothing to guarantee our salvation. Christ already came to save us. While we were still sinners. Christ came for all of us. What we are striving for as Christians is not our salvation, but a grateful response. We love because God loved us first, and gave to us in Jesus Christ a vision of the way the world can be, the way God’s kingdom will be when all things are made new and all things are made right. And we can live into that vision right now. It’s not a law. I cannot compel you to do it. It’s a commandment of the heart. It’s a gift; but it’s also a daily struggle. Would you join me, as I struggle, to love?
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